Heart of the Sun Warrior
Sue Lynn Tan
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers, for this book as well as its prequel.
Damn. I thought Martin the Warrior ruined my life, but then I read Heart of the Sun Warrior and it made me realize that Martin the Warrior is more like a pinprick compared to the raging inferno triggered by a lethal combination of Xingyin, Liwei, and Wenzhi. Long story short, I really was not expecting that ending to wreck me the way that it did, and I now have a massive Celestial Kingdom hangover that can only be cured by the upcoming third book.
The Celestial Kingdom duology began with Daughter of the Moon Goddess, a breathtakingly fast-paced tale of love, sacrifice, filial piety, magic, and monster-slaying. (So, a pretty average Chinese drama.) It introduced Xingyin, the half-human daughter of moon goddess Chang’e and sun-slayer Houyi, whose serene existence got torpedoed by an unexpected threat from the vindictive Celestial Empress and her creepy advisor, Minister Wu. Forced to flee her home on the moon, Xingyin crash-landed in the middle of the Celestial Kingdom, but by sheer luck managed to win a position as the study companion of Celestial Crown Prince Liwei. Their budding romance was quickly derailed by Liwei’s betrothal to Princess Fengmei of the Phoenix Kingdom, then derailed further following interference by the devilishly charming Wenzhi, a well-respected captain in the Celestial Army. However, Wenzhi then turned out to be the Crown Prince of the Demon Realm, which might not have been so bad if he hadn’t also attempted to seduce Xingyin by abducting her and putting her in magic-blocking chains. (I mean, jeez, Wenzhi. At least take her out to dinner.) After a literal whirlwind of an adventure – pacing is not Tan’s strong suit – Xingyin rescued her mother from the clutches of the Celestial Emperor, and, with the very convenient dissolution of Liwei’s betrothal, seemed ready to give their romance another chance.
Heart of the Sun Warrior picks up a year after the events of Daughter of the Moon Goddess. Xingyin remains close friends with Liwei, though she isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of marrying him, largely because his parents hate her possibly more than they’ve ever hated anyone else. (To be clear, the list of people they hate is not short.) Liwei’s efforts to reconcile his parents with his choice of bride are heroic but completely unsuccessful, and their relationship is not helped by Wenzhi’s habit of flying to the moon every night in the hopes that Xingyin will come out to talk to him. Still, life on the moon is good: Xingyin receives regular visits from her friend Shuxiao, a soldier in the Celestial Army, and, with nothing threatening her survival, she has been able to recover most of her lifeforce, which was greatly depleted when she freed a quartet of dragons at the end of the first book. The recovery process was expected to take decades, but she has bounced back unnaturally quickly owing to the regenerative powers of the laurel tree that stands near her mother’s palace. Unfortunately, the power of the laurel also draws the attention of Minister Wu, whose relationship with the Celestial Emperor has grown increasingly sinister. Originally called Wugang, he began life as a human but later became an Immortal, and has since devoted himself singlemindedly to becoming the Emperor’s most trusted counselor. Under his influence, Liwei is arrested for treason, while Xingyin and Chang’e are placed under house arrest.
While the Emperor’s grasp on the Kingdom weakens, Xingyin and her mother flee the moon with the help of Wenzhi and Shuxiao, and make their way to the relative safety of the Southern Sea. Their precarious position improves when Xingyin finds her still-living father in the Mortal Realm and helps him regain his immortality; she also persuades the Celestial Empress to help her free Liwei. Despite these losses, Wugang raises an almost indestructible army of the dead using the stolen seeds of the laurel tree and overthrows the Emperor. Knowing that Wugang and his undead soldiers are the biggest threat the Immortal Realm has ever seen, Xingyin comes up with a desperate plan to destroy the laurel tree, and, in service to this plan, reluctantly agrees to ally herself with the Demon Realm. The plan works, but Wenzhi and Xingyin completely drain their lifeforces, and die within seconds of each other. Xingyin is revived one last time by the remains of the tree, but finds that her life has lost all meaning. She has no wish to become the new Celestial Empress in place of Liwei’s mother, who died during the final battle against Wugang’s army, and cannot move past either her grief for Wenzhi or her guilt over her refusal to trust him. After several years of listless roaming in search of Wenzhi’s spirit, she returns to Liwei, who tells her that, as Celestial Emperor, he was able to send Wenzhi to the Mortal Realm for rebirth. In time, he will be given the same elixir of immortality that revived Houyi, and he will be able to rejoin Xingyin in the Immortal Realm. In the Mortal Realm, Xingyin finds the reborn Wenzhi alive and well. He has no memory of his life in the Immortal Realm, but he is drawn to her at once, and the book ends on a far more hopeful note.
The pacing is more reasonable in this book than it was in the first, though the writing is no better. I loved this book, but the quality of the writing is a major distraction. I really, really, really wish Tan would stop putting em dashes and ellipses in dumb places and learn some other word than “as,” because these sentences are driving me crazy.
I caught each hit, flinging it back—his attacks growing more vicious. A struggle to match him on physical strength alone as I was driven back, out of the pavilion, upon the bed of violet clouds. As his next blow crashed down, I swerved out of reach, summoning a burst of wind that slammed him back into a pillar.
He sprang up, his expression murderous as he flung his hand out, a fistful of fiery daggers hurtling toward me. I dropped low just as a furious shout rang out from the pavilion. Wenzhi, fighting his way to me through Prince Wenshuang’s guards. With a kick he sent one sprawling, thrusting his sword through another. Yet more soldiers swarmed around him until I could no longer see him in their midst. My heart plummeted. As I started forward, a searing heat lashed my back. I swallowed a cry as I spun to face Prince Wenshuang, my magic rippling forth to quench his flames. As his energy sparked again from his fingers, coils of air sprang from my palm, flinging him onto his back. A moment’s reprieve before he rolled to his feet, stalking toward me once more. His sword swung down, narrowly missing my face as I dipped back. As he stumbled, I leapt forward, my foot connecting with his gut. A furious gasp choked from his throat as my glittering energy wound around his sword, yanking it from his grip.
“You say ‘as’ too much” might seem like a strange criticism, but I am highlighting these to show how often it happens. And I will admit that this is deeply personal: this is a flaw I noticed in my own writing while I was editing the draft of my first novel, and I have since gone back through that novel to fix it. Nevertheless, I do not regret taking the time because it forced me to be more creative with my language, and I am a far stronger writer than I would have been if I had taken the lazy way out.
Yet although bad writing has in the past made me want to hurl books out of windows, in this case I would not have been able to pry the book off my fingers, even supposing I had wanted to hurl it anywhere. Tan has a gift for crafting a compelling story that keeps me flipping pages and delaying work, chores, other books, bedtime, and anything else that doesn’t involve finding out what happens now now now. As an updated, female-centric take on Chinese mythology, the book is superb. As with the last book, I love Xingyin. I love her relationships with her mother and Ping’er and Shuxiao – by the way, love that Shuxiao gets a Demon Realm girlfriend in this book, 100% wish we’d seen more of them even if it had added another 100 pages or so – and I love her blossoming relationship with Houyi. I love that even though he barely knows her, he’s already such a papabear, and he is completely ready to obliterate any man who displeases his daughter. I don’t imagine it would bother him a whit if he had to tear a couple of squabbling Crown Princes to pieces. Naming no names, of course.
Normally my tolerance level for love triangles and romantic drama is zero, but this series has somehow persuaded me to accept both Liwei and Wenzhi, and I don’t know how it did it. Unlike with other, less successful romances, I get why they like Xingyin. I love that she saves both their asses multiple times without becoming either their caretaker or their pawn. The effort is reciprocal: not only do they save her in return, they also help her save each other as the situation requires, albeit while privately wishing they could just shove each other off a cliff without her noticing. I am so invested that I was very seriously upset when Wenzhi sacrificed himself, and, even though I was low-key expecting him to come back, it was still such a wonderful pay-off. His quiet joy at the very end, when Xingyin finally told him that she loved him, completely destroyed me. And, yes, I have a history of picking the bad guys, but in this case I wouldn’t even call Wenzhi a bad guy. He’s certainly not perfect, but he doesn’t have to be. He is learning and growing, and that’s all I ask. With that said, their relationship was one of the more frustrating aspects of the story, and I do wish there had been fewer conversations that ended with Xingyin absolutely refusing to trust him even one iota. Her distrust is not at all unreasonable, I just didn’t need her to express it quite so frequently.
But at the same time, I don’t know if I would have chosen Wenzhi myself because I also love Liwei, who is so good-hearted without ever being boring or weak. His grief over Xingyin’s brief death might have destroyed me even more than Wenzhi’s final smile. It took only one line, but the picture in my mind was so clear and so heartwrenching. He defends Xingyin against his parents, gets himself into serious trouble while helping her, and refuses to denounce her, even when his father threatens to punish him for his disobedience. I absolutely love that his first instinct when he sees somebody expiring on the ground is to take their hands and try to channel healing energy into them. He wants to save everybody (except Wenzhi, of course, but, like, I get it), and it breaks my heart when he can’t. Literally just let him save people. I don’t need him to get ruined by reality. When he realizes how much Xingyin needs Wenzhi, he lets her go without resentment and even brings Wenzhi back to life for her, and I’m sorry, but that might’ve been enough to get me to sign on as Celestial Empress on the spot even though I’d be perfectly wretched at the job. Like Xingyin, my heart is a battleground. I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely happy with her choice.
If I’m really honest, what I actually want in my heart of hearts is for Xingyin to never choose. I want these two beautiful, adorable ding-dongs to fight over her for as long as they’re all alive and maybe that makes me a bad person but goddammit that’s what I want and I am sorry. I want Liwei to be the Celestial Emperor and Wenzhi to be the Demon King, and I want them to spend an eternity playing petty pranks and trying to trip each other up in between saving the Realm while Xingyin yells at them and Houyi stands in the background patting his hand with a giant man-obliterating club. I don’t even know if I’m having the intended reaction. I have no idea if their bitchy catfights and petty squabbles were supposed to come off as funny. All I know is that they made me laugh harder than I probably should have, especially as I suspect they were meant to be dramatic.
Whatever the case, by story alone, this is one of my favorite books this year. If it sometimes felt like it was trying to do a little too much, its busyness was balanced by the setting, the imagery, the characters, just the whole magical vibe of the series. This is the kind of book that makes pictures in my head, and I am so here for it. The writing needs work – this is part of the reason I want it to be a TV show – but it got me into the world. I know Tan is planning on at least two other books, which is good because I plan on reading absolutely everything she writes about the Celestial Kingdom. And, look, I know that after a certain point most series start to get stale, particularly when they were originally supposed to be short, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case here. With this duology, Tan has created a gorgeous, intriguingly complex world. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.